Homeland Security

Military-Police Relations : The Kolkata Syndrome
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Issue Vol 22.1 Jan - Mar 2007 | Date : 07 Dec , 2010

The Kolkata incident on the New Years Eve wherein the military and police clashed over the detention of two young army officers belonging to a Madras Unit, which has arrived at a peace station (Kolkata) after a tenure at Siachen, is not an isolated occurrence. Such incidents are an increasing phenomenon and most of them escape media glare.

This incident received wide publicity because it occurred in a metro city. Most disturbing is the fact that armed forces personnel on leave are arrested by the police in the rural areas and the concerned military authorities are not even intimated.

The Kolkata incident should be viewed in the backdrop of the growing hiatus and acrimony between the military and the police. It may assume serious proportions if not addressed in a considered and informed manner, and may undermine the vary edifice of the Indian Armed Forces whose professionalism and discipline has been hailed by the militaries and dignitaries from every part of the world including the UN.

Also read: Police cannot take on Maoists

Praise has even come from Pak military officials who had a chance to work with the Indian military personnel in UN Peace Keeping Missions. During World War II, the Indian troops were rated as the best disciplined force and the incidence of venereal diseases which was considered the barometer of discipline, was negligible amongst them. More recently, the Indian Army personnel while deployed to Sri Lanka, acquitted themselves most honourably even as they were in a different country and fighting the vicious LTTE.

Just a few years back following a train (Rajdhani) accident in Bihar, it was reported by a leading Indian daily that personnel from the Railway Protection Force instead of providing succour were busy in stealing articles and money from dead and injured passengers.

Some police officers find the system so incorrigible and murky that they choose to preside over their subordinates from a distance rather than dirtying their hands at the grassroots level, the level at which the general public and armed forces personnel confront the police on a day-to-day basis

The same newspaper next day applauded the Army personnel, most of whom were recruits, for their selfless and tireless rescue efforts. An ex-Colonel travelling in the ill-fated train despite having lost his daughter in the accident made most sterling contribution. In the recent earthquake in Kashmir, the assistance rendered by the Indian Army can be contrasted with those of Pakistani Army in Pak Occupied Kashmir. In Kargil the junior leadership of the Army (Captains and Majors) proved themselves as most sharp and audacious cutting edge of the Indian Army.

Assaults in high altitudes against well fortified and defended enemy entails total disregard for one’s life, which cannot be accomplished without an extremely strong sense of values and character.

Should it not therefore evoke a sense of disbelief when the same crop of young officers are accused of molestation by a SHO and propagated by the media. If at all, it has happened, it should be treated as an aberration and the military law must take its course if it has not, then it becomes incumbent on the administration and media to restore the dignity of the concerned officers, the unit and the army as such. Informal queries by this author from sources having close proximity to the parties involved and a plethora of contradictory reports emanating from the print media convey the impression that truth and facts have become casualties.

The Indian Armed Forces apart from serving in an exemplary manner in thwarting external aggression, in restoring internal order, and in reaching out to the people during natural disasters – has been the most potent symbol of national integration. It has also served as a powerful modernising agent in the post-independence life of India. India can boast of a highly evolved professional culture in judiciary and military.

However, the political and administrative culture (particularly the police) is still evolving and its present direction is debatable. Just as to how difficult it is to create or even resurrect the institution of military and its culture is best illustrated in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is struggling to create new armed forces after the old ones were dismantled and destroyed following Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ respectively.

The Royal Nepal Army and the Gorkha units of the Indian Army are composed of men from the same stock, and yet there is a world of difference in their levels of professionalism and military culture. It indeed speaks highly of historical, institutional and cultural ethos of the Indian Army and most importantly its leadership.

Imperatives of the military as an institution demand ethos and distinct culture, which has to be sustained and nurtured. The culture is predicated on soldierly pride, physical and moral courage, individual and organisational self-respect, and military discipline. To protect and preserve the unique attributes of good and potent armed forces, its personnel need to be insulated from processes that could be detrimental to their spirit and professional élan, which is so essential for soldierly and institutional vitality.

The insulation is common in most countries of the world regardless of the type of dispensation. It is for this very reason that the armed forces have judicial system of their own, which particularly in the Indian context is supplementary and complementary to the civil judicial system and not contradictory or antagonistic.

More than the laws, it is a matter of conventions in place that seek to insulate armed forces personnel – and any evolved society or nation is governed more by conventions rather than laws. Once these conventions break, the cross currents of laws can consume the very society and institutions that they seek to protect and preserve.

Also read: Blueprint to tackle Maoists

For instance under given circumstances, the law of the land empowers every citizen, the right to effect arrest, so does the military law empower a junior officer to arrest a senior officer, however the exercise of such powers are unheard of. It is the well established conventions and restraints that prevent such bizarre happenings and eventually the anarchy of law. Nevertheless the police since past few years, has displayed a propensity for blatantly disregarding such conventions while dealing with military personnel or even other segments of law abiding society who they perceive can do little in retaliation.

A son of a Chief Minister indulging in vandalism in a restaurant is honourably shielded, a justifiably angry mob in Nithari is allowed to attack a police station with impunity, and an officer of the Indian Army is not even extended by a SHO the conventional courtesy of informing about his custody — leave alone to military authorities, apparently not even to his higher-ups, who were expected to be on 24 hours duty on incident prone occasion like the New Years Eve. The senior officers of the civil administration, who are expected to exercise maturity and view things in the larger perspective belied the same, by issuing statements having narrow and parochial tenor. Some of the reasons that could be ascribed to the breakdown of convention governing the relations between the police and the military are discussed in this article.

Internal and External Security

Post-independence, with the Indian Police Service becoming a separate and distinct entity, internal and external security unfortunately began to be perceived as divergent imperatives. In fact, the police force began to adopt bureaucratic culture . The common entrance exam conducted by the UPSC has been detrimental to the efficiency of the police force, as more than 90% of IPS officers actually have aspirations of becoming an IAS officer at the time of taking the exam. Psychologically, they are not attuned for a life in uniform and therefore seek non-uniform openings in organisations like IB and R&AW. Their reluctance towards their job at executive levels can be gauged by the fact that even occasional patrolling by ASPs and above has become a rarity.

That police officers consider themselves to be in a different bureaucratic league even in uniform…

No unit commander, no fellow officer, no set of troops can be a mute witness to a fellow officer being locked up in police custody and humiliated.

That police officers consider themselves to be in a different bureaucratic league even in uniform is apparent in the fact that they only man the senior positions (DIGs and above) in BSF and CRPF without executive level experience at the level of Assistant Commandant, Deputy Commandant and Commandant.

During hostilities the Border Outposts (BOPs) serve as the first line of defence and have to be accordingly beefed up and tactically re-sited in consonance with army’s plan. Does any police DIG on deputation to BSF, posses the basic knowledge of sitting and coordinating a company defended locality? With this kind of professional attitude, which breeds a false sense of superiority it is only natural for police officers to treat the army officers as inferior beings, fit enough to be dealt with at the level of the SHO. I

n the post independence power conscious society-a hangover of the colonial period, the civil society has contributed no less to this phenomenon. The hefty dowries that police officers receive in some parts of the country are a testimony to the prevailing upstart values.

A former Chief Minister of a state once asked a relative of his, an army officer, to look for a suitable boy for his daughter. The army officer asked if the arena of choice could be extended to the armed forces. The Ex-Chief Minister’s reply was a categorical ‘No’, and he further clarified that if at all from the uniform community, it could be from the ‘Police’. Ironically, the same person was effusive in his salutations to the martyrs of the Kargil War. This private and public posturing is atypical of political decision-makers and indicative of their approach to internal security and external security. While they view the internal security apparatus as a tool of political power play, their occasional posturing on external security and armed forces are mere demonstrations to establish their nationalistic credentials.

It is this compartmentalised and misplaced approach that is partly responsible for prolonging and festering of security problems in the country and is responsible for the growing chasm between police – paramilitary and the army. Even under most serious and threatening internal security environment, moves to create a Unified Command is resisted and the political decision-makers instead of giving firm executive orders are happy to see the rift grow.

Inherent Rivalry

To an extent the rivalry between the military and the police is inherent and is prevalent in most countries including Britain, USA and Pakistan as well. Each organisation perceives its job more difficult and important. In the South Asian countries, the police is generally perceived as corrupt and inefficient by the military. On the other hand, the police personnel in these countries resent the deployment of army in aid to civil authorities, as they feel that it casts doubts on their ability. Beyond a point, this rivalry results in antagonism. Each organisation then begins to assert its power and muscle whenever an opportunity is perceived.

During the colonial period in India, army officers served on deputation with the police. The SPs of many districts were Captains. Even today, in some parts of India, the SP is alluded as ‘Kaptan Sahab’. Most of the potential rivalry was therefore eliminated as the respective organisations were conscious, knowledgeable and aware about the needs, imperatives and limitations of one another.

Subsequently, the Indian Police came into being and subsequently post-independence the Indian Police Service. Just how inherent is this rivalry is illustrated by an argument between a DIG and a Colonel during the organisation of an event in the national capital, which fell under the joint responsibility of army and police. The Colonel alluded the Joint Commissioner as Mr (his surname). The commissioner took umbrage and tried to chastise the Colonel saying that ‘in India we call our seniors Sir’.

The Colonel retorted that he would call him Sir, once the junior police functionaries under the commissioner extended a similar gesture to him. In a matured, settled and confident society such basic issues should not be allowed to derail cooperative mechanisms.

Image Problems of the Police

Most Indians grow up hating the police. This is true of even police personnel, which includes the officers, before they joined service. Law abiding citizens should view the police as friendly but it is not the case. The best of people avoid lodging complaints in police station for the basic apprehension of their self-respect being robbed by the police authorities.

Even retired bureaucrats and police officers have been subjected to this ignominy. Unfortunately, most police officers do nothing to reform the system. Some of them who attempt to do so are dissuaded or sidelined by their superiors and political masters for partisan ends. Eventually, they not only become part of the system, but develop a cynical attitude towards those whose security they are paid to protect.

Challenge will increasingly come from terrorists and non-state actors”“like the one being posed by Naxalites. In fact, there is a need for cross training arrangements between the police and the army.

The cynicism on occasions takes the shape of high handedness. Some police officers find the system so incorrigible and murky that they choose to preside over their subordinates from a distance rather than dirtying their hands at the grassroots level, the level at which the general public and armed forces personnel confront the police on a day-to-day basis. A de-motivated police force without proper supervision, motivation, incentives, public support and appreciation, develops a poor self-image and finally seeks solace through illegal gratification.

Non-Recognition of Military Contribution

Military personnel have the growing feeling that the civil society, which includes the police are either ignorant or deliberately ignore their contribution and sacrifices. A survey carried out by a Divisional Commander in J&K revealed that of all matters the troops are bitter about, it is the feeling of non-recognition by the civil society, as also to an extent their own organisation, which weighs most on their minds. Pay package and facilities figured last on their priority.

Thanks to the media, the recognition during the Kargil Conflict was instantaneous, but is not so in areas affected by insurgency and low intensity conflict. Units, which move from Siachen and other difficult areas, are all the more sensitive towards this factor and the Madras unit at Kolkata is no exception. In these difficult areas, it is the young officers who are lynchpins and provide professional leadership under trying circumstances. On arrival to peace locations, initially they do have a boisterous tendency, which is a natural and desirable soldierly attribute for one any young army personnel having loads of positive energy. Most young officers are in their early or middle 20s.

A decade ago, a journalist covering the air show of the Indian Air Force had commented that the professional discipline and dedication displayed by the young pilots was in complete contrast to the unruly and politicised youth of the same age group, that has become a features of most colleges and universities in India. Some transgressions, unless it is contrary to gentlemanly behaviour or shows the integrity and organisational upbringing of the individual in poor light, should be dealt in a manner that it does not impinge on his soldierly and organisational pride, lest he would become a liability to the organisation for the rest of his service. Towards this, the civil society is as much responsible.

Infringement of Soldierly Pride and Honour

The military is centered around history, tradition, soldierly conceit and organisational pride. Moreover, a military leader is expected to be a role model and lead by personal example. He is also expected to suffer the professional vagaries and hazards more than his troops. Shared hardship, fosters close bonding. Soldiers fight and sacrifice their lives for honour and not for promotions and remunerations. In the face of enemy, he knows no other form of fighting except offense – even in defence he is trained to be offensive.

Therefore, whenever his personal honour or that of his comrades or leader is infringed upon, he may well retaliate violently, if he does not it, it should be a matter of concern for the organisation and the country. This is despite the fact that he knows it fully well that his actions while preserving or redeeming his honour may invite disproportionate punishment and even may spell the end of his career, but then he chooses, and appropriately so, to defend his self-respect and honour, disregarding all other considerations. No unit commander, no fellow officer, no set of troops can be a mute witness to a fellow officer being locked up in police custody and humiliated. On the other hand, no set of military personnel will shield a colleague or superior whose conduct brings a bad name to the organisation.

However, the bottom line is that the methods used should not hurt their organisational pride and injure their self-esteem. Armed forces personnel have no reliable and assured channels in the civil to ventilate their grievances and complaints. He does not have faith in the existing civil channels. During insurgency in Punjab, a senior Major while out for evening walk in Chandigarh was picked up by a police officer. He was locked up and beaten. It was a clear case of megalomania and highhandedness on the part of the police officer. An inquiry was conducted by the civil authorities on the insistence of the army. Nothing happened to the police officer.

Recently, the same police officer courted controversy for his highhandedness while dealing with an Indian Express journalist, which was prominently splashed in the media. Military personnel cannot go on dharna, cannot take out processions and cannot call for bundhs. What should they do?

Ignorance of Military Ethos and Judicial System

The civil society and the police must realise that given the nature of job the armed forces have much higher stakes in discipline. Military Law is far more strict, and covers offences and omissions, which may be considered very normal occurrence in the civil. One may consider the number of generals court-martialed or forced to resign, and compare it with the number of IGs or Secretaries dismissed. After the Tehelka episode, it was only the army officers who have been punished, the rest continue to thrive.

Of all the accused, it was only an army officer who had the courage to accept his guilt. In no other government organisation, there are so many accents on truth. An army officer (still serving) as a young subaltern, not more than 21 years old, was serving with his unit in the Ladakh Sector. Like most young officers, he was enthusiastic about driving and took the wheels from the driver. He lost control, and the vehicle and its occupants met their watery grave in the torrential Shyok River. He was the only survivor. When marched up to his Brigade Commander, his opening statement was “they all died because of me”. Amongst the deceased was also his sahayak – a Naga boy.

The officer on the first opportunity went to his sahayak’s village and told the stark truth to his parents and pestered them to adopt him as their son. It was not that the officer was not punished, but the punishment was meted out to him with great respect – something which he continues to command from all quarters of the army. In all interactions and Sainik Sammelans, the aspect of truth and honour are overemphasised to army personnel—and yet as a initial response, more credibility is accorded to the statement of the SHO, hotel staff than that of an Army Officer’s.

Lack of Interaction

In the British days it was mandatory for even junior officers to call on SPs and DMs and other senior officers of civil administration when posted to new station. Today the interaction is occasional and confined to only senior levels. Informal interactions may remove negative mindsets about each others profession. The two organisations must complement each other, especially in the prevailing times when external and internal security have got inextricably intertwined. Future wars are not likely to be over territory but will aim to break the cohesion of nation-states.

Challenge will increasingly come from terrorists and non-state actors–like the one being posed by Naxalites. In fact, there is a need for cross training arrangements between the police and the army. The police officers must shed the IAS syndrome and take pride in their organisation, men and in policing. Surprise checks by them at police stations and on highways may solve half the problems. They must realise the importance of the armed forces, as the ultimate apparatus of national security whose failure could mean disaster and anarchy.

The military does not demand anything from the police except for understanding and the respect that is due to it. Whenever a military personnel reveals his identity, he should be treated as an honourable and reliable citizen of India. The military must also appreciate the constraints of the police and must assure its willing cooperation in all endeavours that helps the Indian society to be secure, progressive and vibrant.

The Kolkata syndrome if permitted to grow could in future lead to acrimony and clashes between the police and the military involving higher rank officers. There is an urgent need to address the problem as the syndrome is far more spread than is actually believed. The security of soldiers and their families must be accorded top priority by the police.

Most importantly, if the dignity and soldierly pride of military personnel are not preserved, it can have far reaching consequences and will ultimately undermine the national security in which the police too have stakes. Lateral induction of some military officers in the police may close the cultural gap between the two organisations and obviate such happenings as the one in Kolkata, and in the ultimate analysis it will be a gain for the internal and external security of the country.

And finally a word of advice to young officers. Dance in the services culture has always been a gentlemanly activity having extremely decent connotations. Service officers must desist from going for dances in an environment monitored by musclemen (bouncers), be it even a five star hotel.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

RSN Singh

is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW and author of books Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and The Military Factor in Pakistan. His latest book is The Unmaking of Nepal.

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